The Journey to Poetry: Do We Teach Poetry for Format or Feeling?

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

"The Journey." By Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, 1903.

“The Journey.” By Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, 1903. //

Have you ever heard groans around your classroom the day you announce the beginning of a poetry unit? Or complaints after sharing a poem such as “I don’t get it,” “It doesn’t make any sense,” and “Is this even English?” Those of us who love poetry are demoralized by these comments, wondering if the experience will be painful for everyone. Sadly, this has caused some teachers to avoid reading poetry with students.

Based on my experiences, I believe students are more receptive to literature I love, perhaps because my enthusiasm is contagious. However this does not always hold true, so I struggle with my poetry teaching philosophy. I ask myself two questions:

  1. Do students need to explicate poems, doing close readings and analyzing structure and meaning?
  2. Should we read poems and only discuss what they make us think and how they make us feel?

I believe there is need and space for both.

Poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who pioneered free verse forms, show us that poetry does not have to follow a particular format to be expressive. The sonnet, haiku, and villanelle illustrate that poems can be both structured and meaningful. Some poets subvert formal structures for their own purposes, illustrating that form and content can be intertwined. I believe these are arguments for explication, enabling students to see the beauty in the format and language.

I also believe it is valuable for students to practice close reading of poetry to see the way poets use language to express meaning. Poetic devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, and imagery are tools in narrative as well as poetic writing. Explication is one way to investigate these uses and make connections to one’s own writing.

On the other side, should the first question we ask students after reading a poem be “How do you feel after reading this poem?” or “What you think the poem means?” instead of “Identify three poetic devices” or “What is the rhyme scheme?” After years of teaching poetry and making many mistakes that I fear caused my students to dislike poetry, I believe we should allow students time to internalize a poem and decide what it means to them before diving into an explication. In this way we honor the effect a poem has on individual students while also exploring the ways in which the poem is a poem instead of another form. The study of poetry in the classroom becomes a personal journey to understanding and appreciation enhanced by looking closely at structural and language elements.

This month’s post has been philosophical, posing more questions than suggestions. I welcome feedback, either agreement or dissension in the comments. What is your philosophy of sharing poetry with students?

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